In 1865, when railways were still in their infancy, many safe operating principles still remained to be established. Nowhere was this made more aparent than on 9 June 1865 on the South Eastern Railway. Whereas the company had installed the electric block-telegraph on its main line in the 1850s, there remained no effective method of enabling contact with workman on the line. Where major work was being carried out, reliance was placed on notices to operating staff and strict adherence to the rule book to ensure the safe passage of trains.
Near Staplehurst in Kent, the SER's line to Folkestone crosses the river Beult. Although called a river, it is little more than a stream and the bridge crossing it is only a few meters high. The line is carried over this cast iron structure on thirty three transverse, timber baulks. These baulks had to be replaced which entailed the removal of the rails. Today, such a task would most likely be carried out at night or during a weekend. This would permit occupation of the section to be given to the gangers and cause the least amount of disruption to traffic. In 1865 however, the gang responsible for the work were charged with completing it between the passage of trains.
Because the timings of these trains differed each day, they were not published in the regular timetable. However, the special arrangerments concerning the Tidals were well-known as the times were published in a special timetable. Company employees concerned with the running of these trains had to take care that they were certain of the date when looking-up a particular train.
The foreman of the gang was aware of this train and had a copy of the timetable.
Their work was complicated by an unusual train working. The London & South Eastern Railway operated a service to the coast to coincide with Channel crossings. Owing to the shallowness of the harbour at Folkestone at that time, the Steam Packets could only enter and leave at appropriate states of the tide. The connecting trains were therefore timed to coincide with these tides. The trains had become known by railwaymen as "the Tidals". The fact that the train describers in use by the SER used the term Tidal to refer to them lent the name a semi-official air.
In carrying out major work such was contemplated by the foreman that day, the rules required that
The foreman had used the normal method of the time to judge the distance at which to place his flagmen. He counted the regularly spaced telegraph poles. What he did not realise was that at this point on the line, they were placed much closer together than was usual. The result was that the flagman was stationed a mere 550 yards (507m) from the bridge.
It was the foreman's plan to replace the final baulk between the up train, due to pass at 1451 and the down train (the Tidal) due to pass at 1720. Unfortunately, he had looked up the wrong date in the special timetable. The Tidal was in fact due two hours earlier.
The gang had finished placing the last timber and had only two lengths of rail to re-lay when the Tidal approached the bridge. Traveling at full speed, some 50mph (80km/h) the driver saw the flagman and heard the reports of the detonators. But, with just 550 yards (507m), the primative brakes of the train did little arrest the express's motion before it reached the bridge. The locomotive came to the gap in the rail and managed to remain upright as it traversed the space, its wheels running on the timber. The first vehicle, a luggage van followed suit. Then, a cast iron support broke and fell into the stream leaving a void over which the first passenger coach, still coupled to the van was suspended. The next five coaches were less fortunate, plunging through the gap and disintegrating in the stream.
Ten passengers were killed and forty nine were injured. One of the survivors was the victorian author Charles Dickens. He had been travelling in the first carriage and was reading through the manuscript of his novel Our Mutual Friend. The accident so influenced him that he wrote, in a postscript to the book
On Friday the ninth of June in the present year, Mr & Mrs Boffin . . . were on the South Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage - nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon a turn - to extricate the couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt . . . I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers than I was then, until there shall be written against my life the two words with which I have today closed this book - The End.
Copyright © David Fry 1998
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